The problems began in mid-October when Iraqi military forces entered the city and took over positions formerly held by the Kurdish military. The Kurdish forces come out of the nearby semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan and had been in de-facto control of the city and surrounds for years, even though officially, Kirkuk is a disputed territory and legally speaking, part of Iraq and not the Kurdish region.
At the time the Iraqi military arrived, the governor of Kirkuk – a Kurdish politician, Najmuddin Karim – left and the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, appointed the deputy governor, an Arab politician, Rakan Saeed, to take his place.
The Kirkuk area had been under the control of Iraqi Kurdish military run by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. This meant that the governor’s job usually belonged to an Iraqi Kurdish member of the PUK.
If the Iraqi government won’t accept the Kurdish military in Kirkuk then we won’t accept having them there either.
Currently there are deep and complex divisions among Kirkuk locals as to what should happen next with the governorship. The Arab parties in Kirkuk want to wait until elections are held – currently provincial and federal elections are slated for May 12 – and resolve the issue that way. Meanwhile the parties representing the minority Turkmen group want to do a deal with the Kurds that would give them a seat at the head of the provincial council and give the Kurds back the governorship.
As for the Kurds, the PUK, is currently trying to bring together the Kirkuk provincial council to appoint a new governor.
That’s a tricky ask. Kirkuk’s provincial council has 41 members. Of those, 26 are Kurdish and they have the majority of seats. The Kurdish politicians come from three different political parties, including the PUK, and have different opinions on who should hold the post. Another nine council members are Turkman - both Sunni and Shiite, and again, even within the Turkman group, the two sects have different opinions on the governorship. The six remaining council members are Arabs and although they are all in one alliance, they also tend to argue among themselves.
“We want to keep the governorship for the Kurds,” Asso Mamand, a senior member of the PUK, responsible for the party's activities in Kirkuk, told NIQASH. “We will not sacrifice Kirkuk. That is why we are putting so much effort into trying to convene the provincial council.”
However, as Mamand explains, some Iraqi Kurdish politicians say they won’t join the meeting because they say the city is “occupied” by Iraqi forces. Those politicians are from the other large Kurdish party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. After events in mid-October when the Kurds were forced to cede a lot of territory they had previously had de-facto control of, the PUK and the KDP blamed one another. Both sides accused the other of being traitors and clearly those rancorous feelings run deep.
“If the Iraqi government won’t accept the Kurdish military in Kirkuk then we won’t accept having them there either,” Kamran Kirkuki, a senior member of the KDP in Kirkuk, told NIQASH. Before the KDP members on the Kirkuk provincial council were willing to return to a meeting, the security in the city should be handed over to local police and any other forces should withdraw, Kirkuki said.
“We won’t return to the city unless the situation in the city goes back to what it was before October 16, 2017,” he concluded.
Meanwhile the PUK’s Mamand says that the council should do its best to appoint a governor who can bring all of the arguing forces in the city together; that would reassure locals and visitors alike, he says. Leaks from inside the PUK suggest that one of their senior members, Khaled Shawani, will be nominated for the position.
There’s another controversy brewing about senior jobs in Kirkuk too. This one revolves around the job of head of the provincial council. This predates the mid-October problems, going back to 2014 when the former head of the council, a Turkman politician, Hassan Toran, was elected to become an MP in Baghdad and left the job. The post was then taken up by Toran’s deputy, Kurdish politician Ribawar Talabani. He has held the post ever since, despite opposition from the Turkmans.
Law around the provincial elections says that the party with the most votes should get the governor’s job, Najat Hussein, a Turkman politician who sits on the provincial council, explains. So that would be the Kurdish alliance. The party with the second highest number of votes is allocated the head of the provincial council. And that is the Turkman alliance, Hussein argues.
“But the Kurds violated this rule when the last council head became an MP and they are not prepared to give the post back to the Turkmans,” Hussein complains.
In fact, as Iraqi Kurdish politician Jamal Mawloud points out, the Turkmans cannot agree on who their candidate should be anyway because the different sects within the group – Shiite and Sunni – are at loggerheads on the topic. “That’s why there are three candidates for the post,” Mawloud adds.
Meanwhile, back in Iraqi Kurdistan, the controversial former governor of Kirkuk, Kurdish politician Najmuddin Karim, says all the wrangling is nonsense because he still considers himself the governor. That is even though the current governor and even leaders in his own political party have issues with him.
For the past three months, Karim, who currently lives in the Iraqi Kurdish province of Erbil, has not been able to even return to Kirkuk.
“According to all legalities, I am still the governor, I was appointed by the council,” Karim told NIQASH. “Kirkuk is now occupied, and the new governor was appointed by force,” he continued provocatively.
So where does this leave Kirkuk, politically speaking? In a no man’s land, where the power vacuum is slowly but surely starting to impact negatively on the people here. While politicians argue about posts, state services and security are deteriorating, and the numbers of murders, kidnappings and thefts is rising.